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How This Refugee Turned Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis Into A Charitable Mission

Maimah Karmo is an inspiration.

On February 28, 2006, at 4:45 p.m., Liberian refugee Maimah Karmo was blindsided by a life-changing phone call from her doctor: She had Stage 2 breast cancer. Maimah was 32.

It was a frightening moment for the single working mother. With no family history of breast cancer, Maimah had believed a doctor who had previously dismissed her lump as non-cancerous. “After looking at my mammogram, she said that I couldn’t have breast cancer, that I was too young to have breast cancer,” Maimah recalls. “But I knew my body wasn’t right, and I knew that something was wrong.”

After pushing for a biopsy, Maimah got the news she feared. She tells “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” that she instinctively knew what her doctor was going to say as soon as she saw the phone ring. 

“I knew that, that call I would be on would be the last call I would ever have as the person that I was at the time,” Maimah says.

She was right.

I'm the girl that came here as a refugee from Liberia at 15 years old with one suitcase by herself. I'm the girl who used to walk three miles to get to the bus stop. I'm the girl who got breast cancer.

As Maimah realized back then, everything was about to change.  “I’m the girl that came here as a refugee from Liberia at 15 years old with one suitcase by herself. I’m the girl who used to walk three miles to get to the bus stop. I’m the girl who got breast cancer,” she thought to herself. 

Maimah underwent intense treatment, during which she made a promise to God that if He restored her spirit, she would devote her life to service, advocating for breast cancer awareness. “He did just that, that night,” Maimah says.

So, while still in chemotherapy, Maimah fulfilled her promise by launching Tigerlily Foundation, an organization that now has more than 300 volunteers nationwide and works to educate women under the age of 45 about breast health. 

“Many people ― friends and family ― thought I was crazy to begin a charity while I was in treatment,” Maimah says. “[But] that’s what drove me to start creating this organization.”

Today, Maimah is a cancer-free and fully committed to Tigerlily Foundation. She mentors young women, speaks at events, advocates for women’s health and policy issues, and writes about her experiences as a cancer survivor.

“I choose to give my life in service,” she says.

Another cancer survivor’s inspiring story:

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